Cultural Appropriation in Branding Part 2: Picasso is Not A Genius and Neither is Vlisco
In the second part of this two-part series, Entrepreneurship and Innovation Editor Mutiyat Ade-Salu expresses more of her viewpoints on the appropriation of African ideas by taking a look at the famous Spanish painter Picasso and the
In the second part of this two-part series, Entrepreneurship and Innovation Editor Mutiyat Ade-Salu expresses more of her viewpoints on the appropriation of African ideas by taking a look at the famous Spanish painter Picasso and the popular Dutch fabric manufacturer Vlisco…
In Part 1, I took companies leeching off of Black Twitter users and African resources to task. In Part 2, I’m going after prominent names who have the power to alter cultural history by concealing the truth about their African inspiration.
Picasso Owes Credit
I’ll never forget going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see its Pablo Picasso exhibit last year. I had long since known that Picasso, a Spanish painter, had been heavily influenced by West African artwork and incorporated those same aesthetics in his paintings during the early 1900s, a period known as the Africa Period. (Ironically, this was 20 years after most present-day African countries were created and named by European politicos at the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885. No African representative was present.) The exhibit curator made no mention of the specific country Picasso got his “Cubist” style from and yet, when I saw it, my mind went immediately back to to a Yoruba shrine I saw in the Sacred Grove Forest in Osogbo, Nigeria. Compare it with Picasso’s legendary painting:
There may be debate as to why Picasso himself never gave specific credit for the African sculptures and masks that shaped his most popular style. Maybe he was embarrassed. (I think he was being stingy.) Either way, it hurts my soul that such a renown artist is consistently labeled “a genius” for developing an inauthentic brand that sparked the beginning of what we now know as modern painting. No one can deny that, even post-mortem, Picasso has an incredible brand. But, where is the due credit for the West African sculptors that influenced him? Are they not geniuses, too?
Ankara and In/Authentic Dutch Wax
Remember the trend that the teenaged, African-American, Kyemah McEntyre, began with African-inspired prom dresses?
In one way, the recent ankara and dashiki craze, has been beneficial to the entire African diaspora. People young and old, from Compton, California to Kingston, Jamaica, from African-Americans to Caribbean-Americans to Afro-Brits have begun embracing African textiles (or styles similar to it), effectively creating new ties among people of African descent. You can find ankara fabrics, skirts, blouses, purses, and anything else you can think of at street festivals across the United States. However, I think we need to stop and consider where these ankara fabrics are being manufactured. Vlisco, the top producer of ankara fabrics, is a Dutch company making an extreme profit off by calling these fabrics “Dutch wax”. As of this article’s posting, the company does not give public credit to the regions that helped create this art form: West Africa and Indonesia. Under its description of the “Hollandais-style Ankara” Vlisco’s site states:
“Since 1846 we have been creating unique Real Dutch Wax fabrics in Holland that have influenced the African fashion landscape.”
What is should read is:
“Since 1846, the African fashion landscape has influenced the wax fabrics in Holland that we have been creating .”
No need for the words “unique’, “real”, and “Dutch” to be included.
Vlisco did not inspire African fashion. African fashion inspired Vlisco. The designs and techniques the company uses came from African and Indonesian craftsmen. Their website’s declaration of branding is false and insulting to the genius talents of craftsman who do not have the privilege that European traders have been flaunting for over one hundred years. Below is just one of many examples of their attempt at duplication:
Traditional Yoruba Adire Cloth, Abeokuta, Nigeria vs. Vlisco Manufactured Textile, Netherlands
Listen, I get it. African women buy Vlisco because it’s attractive and their mothers, grandmothers, and even great-grandmothers were attracted to the imported fabrics, too. (Thank you, European colonialism.) Compared to native fabrics, Dutch fabrics have cleaner lines, brighter colors, more consistent patterns, and not to mention the appeal of “coming from abroad”. All these attributes can make some African women feel like they have a little higher status than the common woman who can’t afford it. But is it worth it? To keep giving money to a company to sell us a flashier version of what we’ve already created? What message are we sending to the world about our self-worth? Vlisco’s branding strategy is clever: use foreign”cultural capital” to make profit for a Dutch name. (I’m sure the King of Netherlands is very pleased.) Furthermore, it strategically uses the faces of its own customers to represent the brand via its website , ad campaigns, and blog. In doing so, it draws attention away from the European faces working behind-the-scenes in corporate offices. The American company Strength of Nature (which owns every brand of Black hair care products you can think of) uses this same strategy. For companies like Vlisco, the message is clear: we are not “you” (i.e. Africa) but we will use “you” for our own promotion and prosperity. And “we” let them do it! I could write more on this, but I’ll wrap it up…
Branding techniques and misrepresentations like this reveal what little security companies like Vlisco have in their own creativity. If real recognizes real, then real Africans don’t fall for false branding. As a consumer, divest from companies that need to use foreign cultures to create their own brand when due credit is not given to the originator of the idea or technique. That’s what I call “stealing cultural capital”. As a producer or entrepreneur, stay clear from the false branding tactic and put in the effort to legally protect the creations you make within your own culture. With careful consideration in drawing up our business plans and brand strategies, we have the power to GUARD THE CULTURE! In the long run, the products bearing an original cultural mark gain more value than the ones that don’t. I hope the same will be true for future vernacular, music, and other art forms created by people of African descent.